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Jon Stewart changed the news while we were watching

Jon Stewart offended my newshound sensibilities

I must confess I came late to Jon Stewart.

That's probably not a surprise, considering that I am not in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic that has been so slavishly devoted to him for all of his 17 years as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

But that's also not the reason. I turned up my journalist's nose at the idea that news gathering was somehow entertainment, somehow funny. That reporters in the field could be so easily lampooned. Were we not engaged in holy war?

But Jon Stewart changed, so did the Daily Show and so did I.

At some point he stopped riffing on the news and he stopped making reporters look like fools and he started delivering heart-felt civics lessons — still with plenty to laugh at. He was unpacking politics and current events for us while exposing pundits and politicians for the naked emperors they were. I stopped feeling like the butt of the joke and started feeling like I was in on it.

And he was everywhere.

Instead of just a late-night coda for the younger set, clips of The Daily Show where showing up all over the Internet. The Huffington Post and lots of other online news aggregates started including Daily Show highlights as part of their early morning briefings. He was hard to miss.

But it was probably the election season of 2012 that brought me completely into the Jon Stewart fold. I needed a place to escape the crazy talk about legitimate rape, fetal pain, God's plan for conception during rape and that evolution is a lie propagated by Satan. I needed Jon Stewart to make me laugh — a little madly, I admit — at what was passing for political discourse.

After Mr. Stewart announced this week that he was leaving The Daily Show sometime before his contract expires in September, Hank Stuever, writing in The Washington Post, said that he has been right about so many things that if he thinks it is time to pull the plug, he must be right about that, too. I'd have to agree. Besides, he was getting preachy, and I still need to laugh knowingly.

After Walter Cronkite died in 2009, Time magazine printed a poll that showed Jon Stewart was the most trusted newsman in America — ahead of Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw. If it wasn't irony then that a comedic host of a fake newscast could be enshrined thus, it certainly is now.

But he was also the prime mover in the splintering of the news. He made it easy — even pleasurable — to hear the news the way we wanted to hear it. As much as Fox or MSNBC, he was preaching to the like-minded. Just as the country and its leadership needed more than ever to talk to each other, we were listening to our own points of view echo at bottom of our own private barrel.

And that wasn't all. He numbed our indignation with laughter. Steve Almond, writing in Salon after Mr. Stewart's announcement, said that he had reduced us all to "passive consumers who regard civic decay as a source of entertainment." Watch The Daily Show for your daily dose of outrage and be done with it.

As early as 2009, polls showed that young people thought The Daily Show and The Colbert Report would replace regular news. It was very nearly true, but now both Mr. Stewart and Stephen Colbert are leaving the stage after profoundly changing the nature of the news in ways we never saw coming.

Jon Oliver, with his deeply reported broadcasts made palatable, again, with humor, may be changing it again on HBO's Last Week Tonight. It may be that the best journalists will need to trade shoe leather for the microphone at a comedy club, polishing not the reporting but the delivery.

I can't wait to see how the next epoch of news unfolds. Whoever takes Jon Stewart's place or Stephen Colbert's place, it will not be Lester Holt.

The news will change again. And this time, I will be paying attention.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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